By Frances Stebbins
These days in my tenth decade I often find myself mentally singing a hymn as I get about my daily routines. That’s not surprising, for hymns are part of my earliest childhood memories.
I learned them from Sunday School at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Orange, Virginia, but mostly they were sung to me by my mother who had no musical training but enough of “an ear” for me to appreciate her efforts. She told me her father, Daniel Lichliter, had been the bass soloist in his church choir in Woodstock, Virginia.
The hymns she sang were old Presbyterian ones such as “Rock of Ages,” “ I Think When I Hear the Sweet Story of Old” and “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” There were also, of course, those especially for children, such as “Jesus Loves Me.”
Soon I could sing all the verses of “Golden Harps Are Sounding,”” From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” “Abide With Me” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”
I had no childhood musical training either, but music, along with the sermon, is the most important component of my regular Sunday church attendance.
My reflections on sacred music came about from reading an article in The Anglican Journal found online. It seems the Anglican Church of Canada has just published a new supplement hymnal, “Sing A New Creation.”
The article includes the information that the new publication contains “songs of lament.” That came about, the author said, as a result of the tragedy of the 9/11 attack when, it was noted, many people came to church at least temporarily. They did not feel like singing the usual songs of praise yet had a sense of a need for God.
A music professor, who was quoted in the article, observed that “Lament is the shadow side of praise.”
Since 2001, as in any period of history, there have been many tragedies. With the world now into its third year of a respiratory illness which has killed millions and the prospect of a spreading European war, there is ample reason to lament.
The supplement to the Canadian hymnal is distinctive in that it not only contains hymns of lament but it also was put together by volunteer sacred music composers, professors and church choir leaders. In the past, the article points out, new hymnals were issued about every 25 years.
This also was true for many American denominations. In the 1970s my files show that I wrote of the updating of hymnals which, some church leaders said, was long overdue. It was controversial at the time, for favorites such as “Onward, Christian Soldiers” were considered unsuitable by some during the Vietnam conflict protest period.
At home today I own several hymnals including one issued by the Methodist Church in the 1960s. It contains a wealth of familiar melodies, many by Charles Wesley, a brother of John Wesley, the English clergyman credited as founder of what is now the United Methodist Church in America.
There is also an updated “Hymnal 1982” put out by the Episcopal Church and the one used in my Salem parish today. It’s a much updated volume from the little dark blue book we used in my childhood. That one had no musical notation, just words. Perhaps only the choir –and we had a good one at St. Thomas–was supposed to sing.
The need for updating hymnals over the past half century has become evident as churches have sought to be more inclusive of people of color and from some other religious traditions. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was celebrated at the festive annual meeting the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia used to hold each January in Blacksburg or Roanoke, came out at the turn of the 21st Century. It’s described as an African-American Hymnal; we delegates enjoyed trying out some new sacred songs.
Other songs were associated about 40 years ago with the Cursillo Movement which attracted some Roman Catholic and Episcopal adherents. Later the four-day program was adapted in other groups.
These “spiritual songs” such as “This Is the Day…Which the Lord has Made” were an important factor in the enthusiasm many who participated in the intensive singing and talks for spiritual growth felt on returning from an event.
No one speaks of Cursillo weekends today, but most congregations of believers have a choral group, and some of us ,whatever our age, sing along.